Books … or people?

Fact: I am not a sap who typically says things like, ‘It’s the human connections that really matter. It’s about the people in our lives. People matter more than experiences. What’s really important is family and friendship.’

Allow me briefly do that.

I am about to read the book Prayer by Timothy Keller as part of a church group. Fact: I have never read a Tim Keller book before. I’m not really the sort who reads American ‘celebrity’ pastors. I do read British ‘celebrity’ Orthodox bishops and archimandrites, though. Due to my own trajectory, my own personality, my own past, my own likes and dislikes, my own sins, my own virtues, I am less likely now to read books by people like Tim Keller than books by people like Father Zacharias of the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England.

I was thinking about this, and about writing a post about that trajectory, and the books that have helped me get where I am, from Andrew Murray’s A 31-Day Guide to Prayer read whilst a teenager, to James Houston’s The Tranforming Power of Prayer at age 22, to now, 33 years old and reading Kallistos Ware in my spare time (and St. Cyril of Alexandria at work!).

At the end of that draft, I felt, ‘To what avail?’

And I thought of Fr Raphael’s tutelage in the Jesus Prayer. And I thought of the accountability of praying the daily office with my brother as part of the Witness Cloud. And I thought of the time spent talking about spiritual growth and prayer with a number of people over the years — friends, family, mentors.

If my hard heart is softer, my mind more attuned to God, it is more recognizably so through these interactions.

But the books have helped. I know that they have. Yet sometimes one feels like, after so many books about prayer, Morning Prayers, Jesus Prayers, extemporaneous prayers, prayers in tongues, etc, etc, one still sits at the bottom rung of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, as poor and sinful as ever one was at the start.

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Intercession: The heart of prayer?

El Greco, The Agonyin the Garden

I once read a book that said that worship was the most important form of prayer. This may be right, but I am not always certain that worship is prayer. Not etymologically, and certainly not in the biblical record. When St Paul exhorts people to pray, it seems often to focus on bringing petitions before God.

According to a little booklet I got of 30 days of prayer with Andrew Murray (purchased at Hull’s Family Bookstore, Thunder Bay, Ontario), intercession is the most important form of prayer.

I do not wish to say which of the forms of prayer — things like the Jesus Prayer or intercession or worship or confession of sins — is most important out of those that have been offered up as candidates. However, I think intercession should be at the heart of our prayer activity as we commune with God in our quiet place.

I hold this belief for several reasons. One is the etymological fallacy, that the English word ‘to pray’ originally means ‘to make a request’ — and the request is not always from God.

This is not, however, simply the etymology of English, but also the meaning of the Greek used in our Bibles. Luke 22:40, Christ tells the Disciples on the Mt of Olives to pray that they not fall into temptation, using the verb proseuchomai,* and then goes off to pray to the Father — once again, proseuchomai and that which he offers to God is a proseuche.** This Greek word, proseuchomai, means to make a request or offer a petition; its related noun means a request, a petition, or a vow, often one made to a god.

I believe that getting to the root of the words we see in any text is an important aspect of study. What does the Bible mean by prayer? What is its root? What is its cultural context? etc, etc.

Some famous Bible verses about prayer that use this Greek word (NIV):

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. -Acts 2:42

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. -Philippians 4:6

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. -Colossians 4:2

pray without ceasing -1 Thessalonians 5:17

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. -1 Timothy 2:1-8

Of course, a petition need not be intercessory. The standard form of the Jesus Prayer is a petition, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ But it is not an intercession.

Intercession, as an English word, is a particular form of petition. It is a petition made on behalf of someone else. The intercessor stands in the breach between a person or situation and the gracious God, pleading that Our Lord will have mercy and bring his love and mercy to bear on a particular situation.

So here I come to my final two reasons why I think intercession is at the heart of prayer. Not only is it biblical, it is also unselfish. It is an act of utter charity. Intercessions are not prayers about me — my cold, my loud flatmates, my financial situation, my research and so forth. Intercessions are prayers that are focussed on others.

As Christians, we are called to be servants of all. We are called to give up ourselves for others. We are called to live not for ourselves. We are called to live in complete charity.

Finally, intercession brings us before God in a bold way that some may think lacks humility. Who am I to ask anything for anyone else before God? God is God. He is the most powerful, majestic, awesome, beautiful being in the universe. He sustains all things by his hand and brought them into existence by a mere word.

This is why we must intercede before God for others. We need to learn that our God is not like the gods of the ‘pagans’. He is not distant. He is not so far beyond us that we cannot approach his throne ourselves. We do not need any mediator besides Christ (who is himself God!). He does not require long, complicated rituals for us to access him. He does not delegat the task of hearing petitions and intercessions to his minions.

God, Himself, wants to hear from us. He wants us to join him in his task of redemption, and this includes interceding for those around us.

We should do it in humility, but in love not quaking fear.

*For Hellonphiles or over-clever people, I always cite words by their lexicographical lemma so that my readers can find them in a dictionary. What would be the use of giving an infinitive when it is the first principal part that is needed?

**If I could do macrons, I would.